HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

December 22, 2011

Arboreal Artistry

               The key to a successful existence in nature is avoidance of competition.  This is especially true in the highly competitive world of the carnivores.  In order for a species to thrive, it must occupy its own ecological niche.  What is an ecological niche you might ask?  Perhaps the best way to describe this is using a business parallel (before the chirps come flying in, I know that this is a highly unusual simile for me, of all people, to draw upon!).  If everyone came out of education qualified in plumbing, the market would be saturated and the majority would not be able to put their skills to good use.  Those lucky enough to get a job in the first place would struggle to make money due to having so many competitors.  Therefore, with our ability to become qualified in a multitude of skills, the workload is spread over many areas and thus more businesses are able to coexist.
               The same is true within the animal kingdom.  If every animal ate grass, there would be no grass left.  If all predators ate the same size prey or operated at the same times of day and in the same habitat, only the strongest would survive.  In our case, the lion would be the only large predator roaming Africa.  Nature has combated this by giving us a great array of shapes and sizes, each of which specialize (occupy an ecological niche) in a particular way, allowing them to coexist.  Let’s use our major draw cards as an example: lions take large prey; leopards take medium sized prey.  Lions do most of their hunting in the dead of night; leopards at dawn and dusk.  Lions prefer hunting on open plains; leopards prefer thicker vegetation close to rivers and drainage lines.  As you can see in these 2 species, although they are both carnivores and big cats, their behaviour enables them to avoid confrontation where possible.
The Selati male skulks along the banks of a drainage line close to Bush Lodge

               The other threat that that predator face here is kleptoparasitism.  Long word yes, but it has a simple meaning – having your food stolen!  All predators will use force to chase off opponents and take the food for themselves.  Once again, how can they eliminate inter-specific competition (competition between different species)?  Hyenas have become highly cooperative, lions have become social and leopards have developed the ability to climb trees.

The Nottens female takes a rest during her patrol

Selati male enjoying a comfortable spot

               Most people would agree that the leopard is by far and away the most beautiful animal we are graced with here at Sabi Sabi.  Their habituation levels mean that we are in the enviable position to get up close and personal with these magnificent beasts on a regular basis.  The stereotypical ‘perfect’ sighting of a leopard is to see one lounging in a tree.  Their ability to drape themselves over the branches is unparalleled.  It seems that no matter the shape of the tree, they are able to find the perfect spot every time.  It is like sinking into your favourite couch to watch TV after a long days work.  You body instantly moulds into the fabric and the contentment is overwhelming.

The Little Bush female gazes over her domain from her perch

Time to move on for the Selati male

               Climbing into a tree is one thing but to navigate the branches and to climb down is often another thing entirely.  It is not impossible to see a lion in a tree but it is hilarious to watch one try and get their paws back on to solid ground.  The king of the jungle is often reduced to looking like a frightened kitten when presented with the challenge of climbing down a tree.  Thankfully, the need for heavily protected fireman is not necessary and, usually, after a lot of inching, slipping and general ungainliness, the lion is able to fall from its perch. 

An elevated viewpoint allows Nottens to survey her territory

               The leopard however has none of these problems.  This angelic looking killing machine is able to weave through the lattice of vegetation with consummate ease due to its lighter body weight and disproportionately long, thick tail.  The latter is used for balance as it glides from limb to limb.  Not only this, but the leopard possesses a locking mechanism in its wrists that allows it to support its body weight without the wrist ‘breaking’ under its own body weight.  This particular adaptation is essential for a fluid dismount.  The speed at which it can maneuver and descend a tree is mind blowing.  The leopard is the big cats’ most perfect gymnast and its grace and elegance in the canopy would make even Nadia Comãneci look merely average.

Little Bush descending from a knobthorn

She shows no fear as her claws and locking wrist bone allow her to leap from the tree

A perfect dismount

               The last few months have seen a great rise in the number of leopard sightings in trees.  For most of the year, the only times I was lucky enough to see this wonderful spectacle was if the leopard had stashed a kill out of the reach of marauding hyenas.  To fit in with the tone of the opening gambit of this entry, this ability is a perfect mechanism to deal with the inter-specific competition by keeping your food away from hungry, more powerful jaws.  It is all part of the ecological niche occupied by the most successful of the big cats and goes a long way to explaining why they are the second most widely distributed feline on the planet after the domestic house cat! 

A fallen marula proves the perfect place to get a lay of the land

               But now, with the trees supporting more shelter due to their heavier summer leaf load, the leopards are often seen utilizing this shade to avoid the potent African sun.    For a photographer, this is a dream come true.  I am still awaiting the perfect shot – leopard, sunset and unobstructed foreground and background but any time I get the chance to witness the spectacle it is enough to take my breath away.  Certain combinations in life have a perfect symbiotic harmony: The Beatles, Laurel and Hardy, roast turkey and cranberry sauce, Megan Fox and cut off denim shorts… But perhaps none is more aesthetically pleasing than a leopard resting in the folds of a marula tree.            

The grace and elegance of the Little Bush female needs no further explanation